This academic year marks the second session of Writing Lives, a two-semester project at Langara College, coordinated by instructor Dr. Rachel Mines. Writing Lives is a partnership between Langara, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Azrieli Foundation. Last fall, students learned about the Holocaust by studying literary and historical texts. In January, students began interviewing local Holocaust survivors and will write their memoirs on the basis of the interviews. Students are keeping journals of their personal reflections on their experiences as Writing Lives participants. Students used their most recent journal entry to reflect on their first meetings with the survivor with whom they are partnered. Here are a few excerpts.
Prior to meeting our survivor partner, one of our group members spoke to him on the phone, and she described him as a person “who doesn’t let anything past him.” It seems he’d tested her on her ability to say the word “Holocaust” without shuddering an apology.
It is clear that our partner refuses to spend his time telling his story to anyone who cannot handle it. On one hand, his attitude is a comfort; I believe we will be able to show him that not only are we unafraid to hear his story, but also that we care deeply about helping him tell it authentically. On the other hand, this adds to the building anxiety about our interviews and our worries about writing the memoir. Producing a memoir that our survivor is 100% proud of is my biggest goal and also my biggest fear. I feel that telling the story of another person’s life is a tremendously huge responsibility, and I do not take it lightly.
– Chelsea Riva
We actually met D. before our first meeting: he came to our class to give a talk last semester. Our first interview was arranged at his home, and D. was as warm and friendly as before. So was his wife, and they took good care of us. They helped us with our coats and insisted that we did not have to take our shoes off. D. said we must have walked a long way, and it was the shoes that kept us walking comfortably; therefore, we should not take them off. I immediately recalled what Primo Levi wrote in his book Survival in Auschwitz. Yes, shoes are of the utmost importance, and D. has experienced that. However, we quickly realized that the house was immaculately clean, and so was the light beige carpet that we were stepping on with our shoes! Anyway, while I was worrying about the carpet, the meeting began.
– Bonnie Pun
When I first met D.S., I was apprehensive. The culmination of the past four-and-a-half months was finally at hand, and I was set to be the lead interviewer for our group – not a task that fell lightly on my shoulders.
Moira and he came into the room and she introduced him (she had met him previously). D.S. smiled so widely that his eyes crinkled, and he shook each of our hands in turn. When we were done, D.S. said a few words about himself and then quickly launched into a very compressed, detailed story about his life.
We had been expecting a more casual, getting-to-know-you first interview, and none of us had been expecting to take in such a massive amount of information – although, in hindsight, I’m glad we did. At the end of the interview, after D.S. had given us advice about meeting deadlines and making sure we had enough time to edit and rework parts of his story, we breathed a sigh of relief – it had gone well.
The opportunity to have a question-and-answer session with a person who has survived such great personal trauma is incredible. D.S. is a wonderful storyteller, and the interviews so far have been a continuously rewarding experience.
– Susan Scott
Some of the stories that D.S. shared with us at that first meeting were hard to absorb. I think I didn’t really want to understand what he was saying, as a way of protecting myself, so I wouldn’t show I was affected while I was in the room with him. It was only after I listened to the recorded interview that I could even start to imagine the events that he had endured. It sunk into me that this was a real thing that had happened to a real man, one who sat in front of me, ready to share his pain and perseverance with us. For that, I am grateful and honoured.
What D.S., the other survivors, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, the Azrieli Foundation and Langara College are doing through the Writing Lives program is so immensely important – something I have come to understand on a new level after that meeting. I think the point is to affect others in the way that this one meeting affected me. It’s to try and understand people’s suffering as best we can, though we will never feel their pain, and to use that understanding to become better people, and not be complicit in others’ suffering in the future.
– Moira Henry